Flourishing 101

I recently received an email from one of our SOP doctoral students with a link to the National Public Radio series, “This I Believe.”1 The story of interest was about a six-year-old, Tarak McLean, who had written a list of 100 things that he believed in as fulfillment of an assignment for the 100th day of kindergarten, when all the children were asked to bring in 100 things. Some children brought cotton balls, or cheerios, or crayons. Tarak brought beliefs. His list began:

I believe life is good.
I believe God is in everything.

If we had asked Iraeneus, one of the early fathers of the Christian tradition, to write his version of an essay for “This I Believe,” he might have started with the phrase, “Gloria Dei, vivens homo,” which is somewhat inelegantly translated as “The glory of God is a human being fully alive.” The question of what it means to be fully alive, and therefore fully human, is a worthy investigation for each generation.

Too often our psychology and our theology have focused on the negative when it comes to thinking about our humanness. Our humanity has been associated with sin, brokenness, mistakes, and failures. We focus on our problems and our capacity for sin, then we work to eliminate them from our lives. Our humanness is associated primarily with the darker side of human nature. We’re more likely to say, “I’m only human” as an excuse for failure, than we are to proclaim confidently: “I’m fully human.” But if we ask what it means to be fully alive against the backdrop of Tarak’s top two beliefs that “Life is good,” and “God is in everything,” we are faced with the positive aspects of our humanity.

Iraneus is making a strong statement that by being fully human we bring glory to God. Isn’t it sensible that if we are created by God, we ought to embrace our humanness as God’s good creation? Genesis chapter 2 illustrates the great abundance that God intended for us in his original creation. There was nothing stingy in God’s plan. In the garden there was not only sufficiency but abundance and beauty; “every tree that is pleasant to the eye and good for food” (v. 9). In Revelation, the imagery of crystal flowing waters, bountiful crops that never fail but yield fruit each month, trees with leaves for healing, and everlasting light is meant to give us confidence that God has planned for us to be well cared for, to enjoy our physical nature, and to respond to the beauty of creation.

We are reminded that God saw fit to reveal himself as a human being. In the birth of Jesus, heaven and earth were joined in a new creation. It honors God when we embrace the material world and our physicality and live deeply and fully within this creation. For devout first-century Jews, Torah was a pragmatic guide to the simple practices of daily life. Through righteous living they believed they would discover what it meant to be human and could participate in bringing heaven to earth. If all Israel could keep the Torah for one day, it was said, the Age to Come would have begun.

The question of how we ought to live has been an existential as well as practical concern not only for theologians and philosophers, but also for psychologists, sociologists, artists, novelists, and, indeed, all thinking persons. There is a very long tradition within the humanities of thoughtful reflection on this topic. Aristotle wrote about eudaimonia, which, loosely translated, means a life well lived. It included the ability to rise to life’s challenges, engage and relate, find fulfillment in creativity and productivity, and make a positive contribution to a harmonious society. Flourishing is a term that is currently popular in both theological and psychological disciplines. In positive psychology, flourishing has been variously thought of as happiness, well-being, or life satisfaction. In theology, flourishing has been used to capture the notion of living fully in the light of God’s generosity. The Christian perspective differs primarily from that of the psychological in the underlying assumption that human flourishing is dependent ultimately on God’s power and not on our own wealth, achievement, or health.2

Aristotle-drawing-by-D.KlitsieAristotle and eudaimonia

Fourth-century BC Greek philosopher and scientist Aristotle was the first to write about the human state of eudaimonia in his Nicomachean Ethics, describing a state of flourishing beyond pleasant amusements or the accumulation of worldly goods. The Greek term literally translates as “the state of having a good indwelling spirit,” so it naturally varies in interpretations. Pointing out that there is general agreement that “living well and faring well” are equated with being happy, the philosopher goes on to say that “obvious” pursuits of pleasure, wealth, or honour do not necessarily capture the idea’s multilayered meanings. It is considered by Aristotle as the highest good precisely because it permeates—and reflects—all areas of human life. Desirable for its own sake, eudaimonia is a virtue arguably consistent with God’s command in Genesis to be fruitful and multiply in the example of the Great Creator; therefore, to pursue a life of flourishing is to live in faithful obedience.

What Does It Mean to Flourish?

Flourishing goes well beyond the idea that we merely exist or survive. It connotes that we are to live in a vigorous state of thriving and prospering. It calls to mind images of luxuriant growth. Flourishing is living life to the fullest. Flourishing persons’ values are integrated and expressed in their personal growth, family life, work, spirituality, and care for others. Though far from being superhuman, flourishing individuals live their lives fully rather than merely existing. At times this is bound to include suffering, mistakes, and even failing. This is why the question of what makes a good life is so complicated. There is no cookbook or formula that can ensure a particular life outcome. Our understanding of what it means to be human is newly interpreted and expanded by advances in research, technology, changing cultural practices, and exposure to diverse cultures.

Within the field of positive psychology, flourishing has been identified with the concept of mental health. Flourishing individuals are those who have positive emotion toward life, including happiness and life satisfaction. They are regularly in good spirits, cheerful, calm, and peaceful. They also function well psychologically—meaning they have self-acceptance, personal growth, purpose, environmental mastery, autonomy, and positive relations with others. In the social realm they have an attitude of acceptance of others, believe that people and society can evolve positively, feel that they can contribute to society, believe that society is logical, predictable, and meaningful, and feel that they belong to a community. Using these criteria, there is reason to have concern about mental health of U.S. adults. Fewer than one quarter of adults (between the ages of 25–74) meet criteria for flourishing.3

Contrast those who are flourishing with those who are languishing in some or most of the areas of their lives. Languishing is considered the absence of mental health and is also the absence of mental illness. It’s more prevalent than major depressive disorder. Those who are languishing are characterized by an absence of positive emotion in life. They are likely to describe their lives as empty or hollow. They are prone to emotional distress such as anxiety or anger, and tend not to function well psychologically or socially. Lacking confidence in themselves, they find social relationships difficult and hold little hope for the social order. Languishing individuals suffer an absence of meaning or sense of purpose and find themselves chronically experiencing negative thoughts and emotions. Some may simply feel stuck in an unfulfilling job or dysfunctional relationship. Others may be experiencing loneliness, quiet despair, alienation, or negative self-esteem. Languishing is often accompanied by emotional distress, psychosocial impairment, limitations in daily activities, and lost work days.4

An excessive focus on work or a life dominated by the accumulation of more “stuff” is another form of languishing. Although people in this group may experience a sense of success and pride in their accomplishments, there are often negative consequences in other areas of their lives such as personal growth, family, and contribution. When and if they take time for reflection they may experience emptiness, loneliness, or alienation.

There is a theological parallel to languishing as well. Evagrius Ponticus, an early Christian philosopher, identified languishing as the eighth deadly sin.5 Acedia is spiritual ennui, apathy, physical idleness, a condition leading to listlessness and want of interest in life.

Evagrius-Ponticus-drawing-by-D.KlitsieEvagrius Ponticus and acedia

In The Praktikos, fourth-century Christian monk Evagrius Ponticus wrote of the sin of acedia, describing it as the bane of the monk’s afternoon existence—tempting him to feel as though the day “is fifty hours long” and interminably meaningless. This ennui can take a virulent turn, he says, undermining the spiritual life with the aggression of a cancer. Kathleen Norris, in her seminal book A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer’s Life: Acedia & Me (Riverhead Books, 2008), says, “Evagrius soon discovers that this seemingly innocuous activity has an alarming and ugly effect, for having stirred up a restlessness that he is unable to shake, the demon taunts him with the thought that his efforts at prayer and contemplation are futile. Life then looms like a prison sentence, day after day of nothingness.” This description of acedia—or languishing—correctly identifies it as more than simple listlessness or boredom by unmasking its inevitable drive toward despair.

What Are the Hallmarks of Flourishing?

Traditionally, as a society, we have relied on such indices as financial stability, a good marriage, home ownership, and healthy families to indicate flourishing. While these markers do define the good life for some people, we recognize that there are many divergent paths. Our study of individuals who are leading flourishing lives lead us to suggest an alternative grid. We believe that people flourish when their lives have meaning and purpose, when they routinely experience optimism, hope, and gratitude, and when they make a positive impact on others through their work and legacy.

Where do people find meaning? We believe that meaning comes from the awareness that the individual life is part of a larger story. At some point we begin to realize that we are connected to humanity and creation in fundamental ways, that allows us to transcend the limited single self. For many, a sense of meaning comes from spirituality, religion, or life philosophy as the larger questions of life are addressed.

While meaning is the framework in which we understand existence and creation, purpose is what defines our specific role in that larger story of humanity. Flourishing is enabled when we find something to do with our life that is consistent with our beliefs about the meaning of life. For many, their purpose is found in their vocation or for others in their family life. Importantly, purpose is also shaped by the ethics of our life—our character and the moral stance that we take in the world.

One of the characteristics of flourishing individuals is that their emotional life is primarily positive. Even when they experience challenge, adversity, or even trauma they are able to respond resiliently with hope and optimism. This is not to say that there is no room for grief, anger, or frustration. Interestingly, a ratio of three positive emotional experiences for every negative seems to be a tipping point for flourishing. On the other end of the continuum, ratios of more than ten positive for every negative experience seem to be characteristic of people who are in denial about the reality of the human condition.6

Flourishing individuals are motivated to contribute to the lives of others because of a deep sense of gratitude for the gifts they have been given. This is in contrast to the attitude of obligation that comes from a sense of guilt, inadequacy, or fear of punishment. Giving to others increases the flourishing of the entire community and leads to a greater sense of well-being for both the giver and the receiver.

A flourishing life results in a positive legacy. We look back at the trail of the footprints that we have left and are satisfied that in the balance we have lived a good life. We have fully experienced our humanity, stretched ourselves to reach our potential, wisely used the resources at our disposal, and been a blessing to those whose lives have touched our own.

Matchbox,candle,thumbtack-drawing-by-D.KlitsieThe Measureable Power of Positive Emotions

Positive Psychology Researcher Barbara Fredrickson has found support for her theory that positive emotions are linked to greater creativity and flexible problem solving.9 Unlike negative emotions, which narrow our focus of attention to a specific adaptive action (e.g., fear leads to flight or fight), positive emotions tend to broaden our repetoire of possible solutions to a problem. Positive emotions make us more open to our environment and aware of our surroundings, while negative emotions tend to make us reject new experiences in favor of the familiar. Imagine you are sitting at a table holding a candle, a box of matches, and a thumbtack. Your task is to attach the candle to a corkboard hanging on the wall next to the table in a way such that the candle will burn without dripping wax on the table or floor beneath it. Can you think how to solve this problem? In a study by Isen, 75% of the participants who watched a positive-emotion inducing film were able to solve the problem, while only 20% in the neutral-inducing condition and 13% in the negative-emotion condition were able to do so.10 The next time you are doing something creative, try taking a break to do something that leads to positive emotions. Chances are, you’ll find the job much easier!

(Solution: Tack the tray from the matchbox to the corkboard and use it as a shelf for the candle.)

What Influences Flourishing?

While it is important to have adequate financial resources, money is not sufficient for a flourishing life. A single-minded focus on the accumulation of wealth is unbalanced and can result in dysfunctional families and personal lives. We are surrounded by a materialist culture that bombards us with the message that money is the most important ingredient in a good life; yet research demonstrates that once we have surpassed the poverty level (meaning that we can provide for the basic needs of life), the ratio of increasing wealth to happiness diminishes. Other factors become stronger influences, such as the quality of our relationships, meaningful work, the opportunity to contribute to others, health, freedom, spirituality, and continuing personal growth and development.7 (See also Myers article.)

Nor is flourishing simply the pursuit of happiness. There is an important distinction between happiness and flourishing. Happiness, or at least the capacity to experience it regularly, is a partial measure of well-being, but it is a relatively shallow measure. Shallow, because happiness can be a fleeting emotion that is dependent upon a life free of pain, adversity, or even boredom. Adversity and challenge are important ingredients in the development of a quality human being. Thus, using resources to ensure happiness and avoid pain can short-circuit the development of important elements in a flourishing life. Qualities such as resilience and empathy are the result of adversity and pain. A familiar example may help illustrate this. We accept that we need to give our children immunizations throughout their childhood in spite of the fact that shots hurt. We recognize that their bodies need to combat the virus in a weak form in order to build the capacity to resist the disease in its virulent form. Likewise, in life, we need adversity and challenge to build our capacities, engage our creativity, develop our compassion, and motivate our forward movement.

Is Your Life in Balance?

Balance-drawing-of-man-on-see-saw-by-D.KlitsieA commitment to human flourishing is based in the belief that an abundant life honors God, in whose image we are made. The following questions may help to identify whether your life is characterized by flourishing or languishing:

  • Is your life in balance? Physically? Emotionally? Spiritually?
  • Do you have a purpose in life? How would you describe it?
  • What dreams have you fulfilled and what dreams still remain?
  • Are you excited about learning new things? Are you developing new skills or talents?
  • In what ways is your life better than ever? Worse?
  • What is your attitude toward the future? Are you looking forward, or are you worried?
  • Are you generally optimistic? Grateful?
  • What legacy you would like to leave, and are you actively developing it?

An Ecology of Life

Individual flourishing is supported by certain social conditions. The illusion that we are independent autonomous actors who can control our own destiny is regularly challenged, recently by the ways we were impacted by the financial recession. There are clearly forces far beyond our control that impact personal well-being. People flourish when they have the opportunity to engage in meaningful work, have the freedom to express themselves, can engage in personal growth, have healthy reciprocal relationships, and can contribute to the well–being of others. Economic prosperity, safety, justice, and beauty are elements of society and culture that are ingredients in a flourishing life.

We are all familiar with ponds and the abundant life that is located within them. Scientists have taught us about the careful balance that is necessary to support the rich bio-diversity. Pollute the water and the fish, frogs, and plants die. Similarly, human life is a complex ecosystem in which all the parts are dependent upon the other. Change one element and it all changes. This is true in the forests, seas, cities, as well as human communities.

The English poet John Donne is famous for the line “no man is an island.” If human society is likened to a pond, then we may label our lives together as an ecology of living. Fundamental to our understanding about the conditions necessary for humanity to flourish is the fact that we are all interconnected in some way. If this is the case that our neighborhoods, towns, cities, states, countries, and the world are similar to the ecosystem of a pond, then to think about creating a good context for people to live rich, full lives and reach their potential demands a more holistic, systemic approach. It does not make sense to speak about an individual flourishing without asking if their families, communities, organizations, and societies—their ecosystem—are healthy.

If we take seriously the idea that our physical life on earth is part of the intent of God’s plan for us, than we also can never ignore the social implications. If we want something for ourselves, we must also want that for others. The physical life of our brothers and sisters matter. Poverty, abuse, slavery, and other forms of oppression that interfere with any person’s capacity to thrive ought to command our attention. And thus we come to another of the markers of a flourishing life—justice.

We live in a world of unprecedented economic affluence that has led to increased health and longevity. There have also been remarkable expansions in the establishment of democracy and participatory government as well as access to education, human rights, political liberty, and global networks of commerce, communication, trade, and exchange of ideals and ideas—all unparalleled in human history. Yet, there is still unacceptable deprivation, ignorance, violence, and oppression. Widespread hunger, violation of basic human rights, and environmental degradation can be observed in rich countries as well as poor.

If social conditions are such that people are inhibited or deterred from being able to love God and neighbor, then the common good has not been realized. Not only do our individual lives need to be designed to maximize our capacity to flourish, but also the organizations, communities, and even societies that we influence.

It is interesting that although the original description of God’s creation locates us in a garden, the new creation is described as a city. Joel Kotkin, in his book The City, A Global History,8 has suggested that cities have three core functions: to ensure safety, stimulate commerce, and provide sacred spaces. If our cities are to be places where humans can thrive, we need to attend to each of these.

Part of living life in the foretaste of the New Jerusalem is to pay attention in our lives to the decisions that we make that affect others. Wherever we have influence—in our families, businesses, congregations, communities, even societies—we ought to be using human flourishing as a measure of success. In our congregations, organizations, and businesses, in addition to asking about our productivity, budgets, and profit, we ought to be asking how our practices lead to greater well-being among our people. We also ought to be seriously considering whether our practices enhance the well-being of our families, neighborhoods, and society. When all are able to flourish, we will feel that we have indeed glorified God with our humanity.

1. www.npr.org.
2. D. H. Kelsey, Eccentric Existence: A Theological Anthropology, 2 vols. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009).
3. C. M. Keyes, “Complete Mental Health: An Agenda for the 21st Century,” in Flourishing: Positive Psychology and the Life Well-Lived, by C. M. Keyes and J. Haidt (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2003), 293–312.
4. C. L. M. Keyes, “The Mental Health Continuum: From Languishing to Flourishing in Life,” Journal of Health and Social Behavior 43 (2002): 207–22.
5. M. M. Funk, Thoughts Matter: The Practice of the Spiritual Life (New York: Continuum, 1998).
6. B. L. Fredrikson and M. F. Lasoda, “Positive Affect and the Complex Dynamics of Human Flourishing,” American Psychologist 60 (2005): 678–86.
7. E. Diener, “Subjective Well-Being: The Science of Happiness and a Proposal for a National Index,” American Psychologist 55 (2000): 34–43.
8. Joel Kotkin, The City: A Global History (New York: Random House, 2006).
9. B. E. Kok, L. I. Catalino, and B. L. Fredrickson, “The Broadening, Building, Buffering Effects of Positive Emotions,” in Positive Psychology: Exploring the Best of People, vol. 2: Capitalizing on Emotional Experiences, ed. S. J. Lopez (Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2008), 1–19.
10. A. M. Isen, K. A. Daubman, and G. P. Nowicki, “Positive Affect Facilitates Creative Problem Solving,” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 52 (1987): 1122–31.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2010, “Human Flourishing: Reflecting the Abundance of Creation.”